Last year, in an attempt at lowering stress levels during finals week, the University of St. Thomas organized an event in which they planned to bring a live camel to campus. The event was inspired by a popular Geico commercial that shows a talking camel in an office building, expressing enthusiasm for “hump day.” Before they could bring their plans to fruition, however, something unexpected happened. Certain students created a Facebook group claiming the event was, among other things, insensitive to people from the Middle East. These protesters claimed that the “program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possible unsafe environment.” Eventually, the event was canceled to avoid triggering potential attendees.
While maybe not entirely representative of the general state of things, this anecdote is illustrative of a new phenomenon that is increasingly becoming the norm on college campuses: the ability to end or challenge any discussion by claiming offense.
Let’s start with definitions. ‘Trigger warnings’ are disclaimers that subject material is potentially emotionally charged or controversial. They’re often accompanied by ‘safe spaces’; places students can go where they feel comfortable in hopes of preventing them from reliving or discussing emotionally traumatic experiences.
The motivation behind such concepts are more than understandable. Trigger warnings and safe spaces arose out of a concern about classroom discussion being potentially controversial or volatile. But while the idea that we should actively seek political correctness and avoid unnecessary offense is sound, the current extent to which it is put into practice — specifically on college campuses — is problematic.
Trigger warnings, and the ability of college students to foresee and avoid discussions that challenge their beliefs, are inherently harmful. One simple reason for this is that trigger warnings do not actually ameliorate the situations of students they’re geared towards. One of the most basic tenants of psychology is that helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear the most is misguided. And yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing. “Rather than emphasizing political correctness,” psychologists Rebecca Flintoff and Christopher Bollinger write in their text Beyond Trigger Warnings: Preparing for Engaged Learning within an Ethic of Care, “the current movement is more about emotional well-being, and presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche.” If we truly want to help these students, allowing them to avoid discussing their experiences and emotions is not the answer. Individualized therapy or discussion would be more beneficial, and could be implemented without affecting open intellectual discussion.
Not only that, but trigger warnings can actually prevent us from being sensitive to differences in experiences. The people most commonly affected by trigger warnings are women, minorities, and LGTBQ+ students. When this population withdraws from conversation — which is, again, an entirely understandable desire — it becomes a form of censorship that prevents us from learning about each other through dialogue. Essentially a policy designed to make us more tolerant has the potential to do just the opposite.
Another, more controversial, argument against trigger warnings is that they only occur in closed, specialized environments. Put simply, they fail to prepare students for entrance into the outside world. While LGTBQ+ centers and other such institutions do exist outside of college campuses, it’s impractical at a fundamental level to believe that you will never be confronted with opposing views outside of such a safe space. And when that happens, you won’t know how to actually engage in discussion or get your point across — because trigger warnings and safe spaces fail spectacularly to prepare students to defend their own positions on subjects. If you are continuously validated and allowed to avoid debate, you never get the chance to formulate your own ideas and arguments.
But arguably the biggest issue with trigger warnings is that they’ve contributed to the creation of a new ‘right’ that college students have: the right to not be offended. While this seems valid at a first glance, it is a claim that has been increasingly inappropriately overused throughout the country. During the 2014–2015 school year, deans and administrators at the 10 University of California schools were handed a list of statements and phrases that qualified as microaggressions (because they were potentially emotionally traumatic to specific subsets of students). The list of offensive statements included phrases such as “America is the land of opportunity,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” Now, regardless of whether you agree with these statements or not, there is no objective reason they should be exiled from classroom use.
Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “AAUP Says Trigger Warnings Threaten Academic Freedom” in which they cited another incident that occurred. In April 2015, the Asian American student association at Brandeis installed a public display to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians. The installment gave examples such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” However, a serious backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt the display itself could be potentially traumatic to certain viewers. The association eventually removed the installation, and sent an email to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”
These last two examples are both clear cases where the claim of triggering content shut down public discussion. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Atlantic, “claiming something as ‘triggering’ has become a socially unquestionable trump card.” And that’s an issue.
The reason trigger warnings and safe spaces are being implemented so broadly is in response to college students’ increasing desire to be continuously comforted and affirmed. What seems like a good value in theory has led to the slow, grinding halt of intellectual discussion and academic debate nationally. Trigger warnings and safe spaces, if left unchecked, will not only grow into severe intellectual oppression but will damage institutions of higher education everywhere.
Originally published 6/16/17.